Big Ten Basketball: Analyzing Most Pleasant Surprises During Nonconference Play

Ryan Curi@rcuri1Featured ColumnistDecember 27, 2013

Big Ten Basketball: Analyzing Most Pleasant Surprises During Nonconference Play

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    As the end of 2013 nears, so does college basketball's nonconference schedule. Big Ten play opens on New Year's Eve, as four matchups take place that afternoon and evening. While the pre-conference slate is important, each team looks especially forward to the start of rugged play in the B1G.

    Each team has their ups and downs, including players who are overachieving and some who are underachieving. The purpose of this article is to analyze one player from each Big Ten squad who is performing better than they were projected to during the offseason.

    Some picks were clear-cut, while others were more difficult. Some teams have multiple overachievers, while others do not. Nonetheless, these players have performed better than both myself and the media thought they would have thus far. The question is now: Can they continue playing at such a high level?

Jon Ekey

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    After four seasons at Illinois State, Ekey decided to play his final college season elsewhere. The move was an easy one, as Illinois' Champaign-Urbana campus is less than an hour from ISU, located in Bloomington-Normal. As a fifth-year senior, Ekey is one of few veterans on the Illini roster.

    Ekey's best season came as a redshirt sophomore, when he averaged 9.0 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.5 assists in 29.2 minutes. After a coaching change, Ekey struggled to find his role a year ago. Ekey is a stretch 4 but was being asked to play as a back-to-the-basket post player, prompting the move.

    Through 12 games, Ekey is leading the Fighting Illini with 6.3 rebounds, while also scoring 9.1 points, good for fourth on the team. Ekey plays 27.5 minutes from the starting forward slot and is backed up by an all-freshman bench for John Groce's squad.

    Ekey has connected on 42 percent of his three-point attempts, burying 2.3 triples per game. He is undervalued as both a defender and natural athlete and has turned heads with his play in the early going for the 10-2 and rising Illini team.

Noah Vonleh

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    A 5-star recruit, Vonleh came to Bloomington, Ind., with high expectations. To this point, he has matched and exceeded those lofty goals. Through 13 games, Vonleh's season averages stand at 12.0 points, 9.5 rebounds and 1.1 steals in 22.2 minutes of playing time. 

    Vonleh has been limited by foul trouble on several occasions, as he averages 2.9 personal fouls as well. Most recently, he fouled out after only 19 minutes of action against Kennesaw State. Vonleh will need to stay out of foul trouble and on the court for the Hoosiers, who are 10-3 at the moment.

    Vonleh's collegiate career began with four consecutive double-double efforts, and he has added two more since that time. He has struggled in two of IU's three losses, including a 0-point, two-rebound effort against Connecticut and an eight-point, six-rebound performance in a loss to Notre Dame.

    The 6'10" and 240-pound Vonleh is slotted as the starting center for Indiana, despite being considered a more natural power forward. Regardless of Indiana's success as a team this season, Vonleh has done his part to fill the shoes left by Cody Zeller in the paint.

Jarrod Uthoff

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    After sitting the first two seasons of his collegiate career, Uthoff finally took the floor this season as a redshirt sophomore for the Iowa Hawkeyes. Uthoff originally played at Wisconsin, though he decided to transfer back home and play for Fran McCaffery after one year in Madison.

    Through 13 games, Uthoff is averaging 10.8 points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.4 blocked shots in 20.8 minutes. Uthoff is the Hawkeyes' backup power forward behind senior Melsahn Basabe, though Uthoff has been part of Iowa's closing lineup at the end of close games.

    Like Ekey, the 6'9" Uthoff is a stretch 4 player and essential three-point shooting prospect to Iowa's team. Uthoff has scored in double figures in five straight contests, shooting at least 50 percent from the floor in each of those games. 

    After Roy Devyn Marble and Aaron White, Iowa has multiple players who can step up each night. To this point, Uthoff has been that third option offensively for the nation's fourth-highest scoring squad. Can that rabid pace in which the Hawkeyes play continue once Big Ten play tips off though?

Caris LeVert

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    Of Michigan's five sophomores, LeVert probably received the least attention of any this past offseason. The college basketball nation was still buzzing about Spike Albrecht's NCAA title game scoring outburst. Nik Stauskas continued to post impressive shooting-display videos.

    Glenn Robinson III was projected as a lottery-pick selection in the 2014 NBA draft. And Mitch McGary's back injury questions lingered, while he was selected as a preseason first team All-American. LeVert would have to compete with top-notch incoming freshman for playing time.

    LeVert is Michigan's third-leading scorer, posting 12.8 points, 3.8 rebounds and 2.6 assists in 32.7 minutes. As a freshman, LeVert averaged 2.3 points, 1.1 rebounds and 0.8 assists in 10.8 minutes. To say LeVert, a former Ohio recruit, improved during the offseason would be a massive understatement.

    LeVert is a tremendous defender and has certainly improved offensively. At 6'6" and 185 pounds, LeVert could add muscle to become a stronger slasher, but that can wait until next offseason. LeVert won't be overlooked anymore once Big Ten plays gets going.

Keith Appling

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    Appling has been a solid contributor to the Michigan State basketball program for four seasons. After playing alongside Kalin Lucas in the backcourt as a freshman, Appling has moved over to the point guard position for the past three seasons.

    Appling made multiple late-game mistakes in close contests last season, costing the Spartans a chance at a Big Ten title, which Indiana claimed. MSU went out in the Sweet Sixteen and missed the Final Four for a third straight season.

    Should the Spartans not reach the Final Four this April, Appling and fellow senior Adreian Payne would be the first four-year players under Tom Izzo to not reach the final weekend of the season. With only one loss to date, Appling seems poised to get the Sparties back there.

    Appling is averaging 14.9 points, 3.1 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 1.2 steals in 30.9 minutes of action. His shooting percentages are up from a year ago, while his turnovers are down. With so much talent on one roster, it would surprise me if this MSU team misses out on a fourth straight Final Four weekend.

DeAndre Mathieu

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    After playing at Morehead State in 2011-12, Mathieu transferred to play junior college ball for one season, before landing at Minnesota. As a freshman, Mathieu averaged only 2.9 points, 1.1 rebounds and 1.5 assists in 12.8 minutes of playing time. 

    Now as a junior, Mathieu contributes 11.9 points, 2.6 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 2.1 steals, while playing 28.3 minutes for Richard Pitino's team. Adding Mathieu has allowed stud guard Andre Hollins to move over to the shooting guard position, while having two distributors on the court at the same time.

    Mathieu has scored in double figures eight times this year, most recently dropping 27 points on 9-of-11 shooting in a 13-point win over Omaha. He also converted on 8-of-10 free-throw attempts, while still dishing out four dimes.

    Mathieu is Minnesota's third-leading scorer behind Andre and Austin Hollins (unrelated). Pitino has brought a fun fast-paced game plan to Minneapolis, contrary to Tubby Smith's slower methodical environment during his time at the helm for the Gophers.

Terran Petteway

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    Another transfer, Petteway played the 2011-12 season for Texas Tech, where Tubby Smith now coaches. There, Petteway averaged 3.1 points and 2.0 rebounds in 13.1 minutes of PT, before deciding to chase the greener pastures of Lincoln, Neb.

    As a redshirt sophomore, Petteway has averaged 16.8 points, 4.6 rebounds, 1.2 assists and 1.1 steals in 30.7 minutes. Petteway is the leading scorer on Tim Miles' squad, one that is full of newcomers, including Florida transfer Walter Pitchford and stud freshman Tai Webster.

    Petteway has reached double-figure scoring in 10 of Nebraska's 11 games. Petteway scored 30 points in a 96-90 loss to UMASS in November, before most recently scoring 27 points during a 15-point victory over The Citadel.

    At 6'6", Petteway can play multiple positions on each end of the court. He is a 38 percent three-point shooter, while also making 86 percent of his free-throw attempts. Petteway's 2.8 personal foul and 2.2 turnover averages are the only areas of concern at this point in the season.

Sanjay Lumpkin

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    After participating in just four games a year ago, an injured Lumpkin sat out and redshirted the remainder of the season, Bill Carmody's last as Northwestern head coach. Now as a redshirt freshman, Lumpkin is a starting forward for the up-and-coming Chris Collins-coached Wildcats.

    Lumpkin is averaging 5.1 points and 5.5 rebounds but needs to develop a consistency that so many young players lack. Lumpkin has notched two double-doubles this season, a 10-point, 10-rebound effort against UIC, as well as a 13-point, 10-rebound performance against Mississippi Valley State.

    On the other hand, Lumpkin has been held scoreless twice and contributed two points in an additional three games. While Lumpkin is not a primary option on offense, he needs to figure out what type of player he is. At 6'6", he can play multiple positions but hasn't established himself as a shooter, slasher or post.

    As long as Lumpkin continues to bring energy, rebounding and defense to the table, the offense will come for him. With Jershon Cobb currently sitting due to yet another injury that has plagued his career, Lumpkin will need to get off to a hot start during his first Big Ten season.

Amir Williams

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    Williams' sophomore season was disappointing to say the least, the very least. After filling in for All-American Jared Sullinger, Williams averaged 3.5 points, 3.9 rebounds and 1.4 blocks in 16.5 minutes, as Ohio State's starting center.

    Williams' play got so bad, that Thad Matta instituted the ultimate small-ball lineup during the team's Elite Eight run in the NCAA tournament, playing Deshaun Thomas and LaQuinton Ross at center and power forward, respectively.

    As an upperclassman, Williams has stepped up, averaging 10.3 points, 7.6 rebounds and 2.1 blocked shots over 24.8 minutes of action thus far. Williams was always known as a defender, but finally he is starting to put the ball in the basket.

    Williams has scored in double figures in eight of 12 games, including four of his last five. While Williams' offensive game isn't much more than dunks, layups and low-post moves, he is shooting an impressive 66 percent from the floor and has improved to a 67 percent mark from the free-throw stripe.

Brandon Taylor

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    As a freshman, Taylor averaged 5.3 points and 3.3 rebounds while playing just over half of each game at 20.2 minutes. Now as a sophomore, Taylor has upped those figures to 10.8 points, 5.2 rebounds and 1.4 blocks in 26.1 minutes of action.

    On a guard-heavy Penn State squad, the 6'7" Taylor has provided an inside-outside presence from the forward position, as has rising junior Ross Travis. Taylor has made 32 percent of his shots from long range, but has converted on 86 percent of his tosses from the charity stripe.

    Taylor has fouled out of three games in 2013-14 and reached four fouls an additional four times. Taylor has scored in double figures in half of his team's games but has scored at least seven points in all but one. 

    Taylor has improved big time from a year ago and is now Penn State's fourth option behind Tim Frazier, D.J. Newbill and Travis. While the 9-4 Nittany Lions are projected to finish near the bottom of the Big Ten standings, don't be surprised to see them make a push into the NCAA tournament.

Bryson Scott

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    Scott, a 6'1" freshman guard from Fort Wayne, has played well to start his collegiate career. Scott is Purdue's third-leading scorer at the moment, scoring 9.7 points per night, while also grabbing 2.5 rebounds, assisting on 1.6 baskets and swiping 1.3 steals.

    Scott has put up those numbers in only 17.5 minutes of action, as Matt Painter has employed a deep rotation during the nonconference slate. While I expect Painter to continue to play the hot hands, I don't foresee him allowing 11 players to see regular minutes once Big Ten play begins.

    Scott, ranked as the 75th best player in the 2013 recruiting class according to, has been the best of Purdue's freshmen thus far, though all have contributed in one way or another. Fellow freshmen Kendall Stephens (61st) and Basil Smotherman (112th) also were named in that same Rivals ranking.

    Scott has scored in double figures seven times, including a career-high 18 points against Marcus Smart and Oklahoma State, a 97-87 loss to the Cowboys. Scott has been efficient getting to the free-throw line and converting once he gets there, making 73 percent of his free-throw attempts.

Frank Kaminsky

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    The most surprising player on the list is Kaminsky, who is averaging 14.6 points, 5.8 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 1.9 blocks and 1.0 steals in 27.6 minutes for Bo Ryan's unbeaten Badgers. Kaminsky is the team's starting center, following the departures of Jared Berggren, Ryan Evans and Mike Bruesewitz.

    On November 19, Kaminsky set the Wisconsin single-game scoring record, as he recorded 43 points on 16-of-19 shooting from the field in a very un-Wisconsin-like 103-85 win over North Dakota. The 7'0" junior from Lisle, Ill., has scored in double figures in nine of the last 10 games, with that one sub-double-figure game being a nine-point scoring effort.

    Kaminsky averaged just 4.2 points and 1.8 rebounds in 10.3 minutes as a reserve last season but has been nothing short of a star this season. Kaminsky leads the Badgers in scoring, followed closely behind by NBA prospect Sam Dekker's 14.3 points per game.

    Wisconsin has never finished below fourth place in the Big Ten standings, and this does not appear to be the year that streak ends. With a starting lineup of five players who can all pass and shoot the basketball, this could finally be the year Bo Ryan makes a deep NCAA tournament run and reaches his first Final Four.